Responsible journalism at work

The ability of human conceptualization, predicting the future and recognizing patterns are some of the key factors that allowed us to become the civilization we are today. However, when we look at both day-to-day issues as well as the long-standing problems that our societies suffer, there are plenty of failures as well.

Take climate change for example. The science of the subject has never been more certain. We know the causes. We know the effects. We know what is to come and it does not look pretty. Not for our children and not even for those who are still in their prime. But our ability to grasp the abstract fails us when it comes to taking the necessary actions. We cannot conceptualize the future enough to provide a unified response. We require concrete effects, disastrous enough to make us care.

This is but one example. Let's look at another. Poverty combined with costly medical procedures usually results in a tragedy. We know that it is happening every day. Even as you are reading this, there is a parent doing their best to come up with a way to pay for their child's treatment. But knowing this does not make an enormous impact. Yet, when we see that child's photo on a news article as the parents announce their plight, our feelings change as we experience sympathy and are compelled to do something, anything to alleviate that suffering.

Last week horrible news made its rounds on social media as well as conventional media. A puppy was found on Thursday, a day before Eid al-Fitr, in the northwestern Sakarya province. All four of its feet were cut off, as well as its tail. The puppy was first taken to a veterinary clinic close by and then transferred to an animal hospital in Istanbul. Yet, despite all the efforts, the puppy could not be saved. An innocent puppy receiving such brutal treatment leading to its death caused outrage on social media and the story was soon quickly picked up by mainstream media organizations.

Fueled by anger and sadness, people demanded that the perpetrators be found and punished. Considering that the puppy's recovery initially showed promise, and many volunteered to cover the cost of prosthetic limbs, the news of the dog's death became all the more heartbreaking. People this time posted bounties on any information leading to the identification of those who were responsible for the harm the puppy suffered. There were also some reports about how heavy construction equipment might have been the cause. There are reports that indicate otherwise however. Regardless, the investigation continues on whether this was caused by deliberate cruelty or negligence.

Some even stated that they would be seeking justice in this case. Because here was the rub. Even if the perpetrators are caught and identified, the most they can receive is a fine. After all, according to the current Animal Protection Law No. 5199 introduced back in 2004, cruelty to animals is a misdemeanor. It is punishable by a fine as there are no prison sentences and it leaves no marks on the perpetrator's criminal record.

Associated factors

This situation caused even more dismay as many who were outraged were not even aware of this. Even though numerous animal rights groups were campaigning to get harsher sentences for animal cruelty, the situation has remained largely unchanged since 2004. It was even worse before that year when it comes to animal's rights as far as the law was concerned.

Was this puppy the first one to be on the receiving end of brutal torture in Turkey? Not even close. From dogfighting to cockfighting, the lack of meaningful protection of animal rights has been a long-standing problem in Turkey. Not to mention the wanton animal cruelty perpetrated by individuals.

So why was this different? Why did it receive almost unprecedented attention nationwide, along with extensive coverage on mainstream media? So much so that politicians from both sides of the aisle felt compelled to weigh in on the issue promising reforms? Well the reason seems to be twofold.

If you followed Turkish media, for the past year there was increased coverage of stories about animal cruelty correlating with a similar increase on social media. The previous stories on the subject were also met with outrage but not on this level. This one served as the tipping point. Not to mention that the photos of the puppy in bandages also managed to tug the heartstrings of the many who were indifferent to the subject until now. Similar to the photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old drowned Syrian boy who washed up on a beach; the photo of the puppy lying innocently on a table was worth more than a thousand words. And just as Alan Kurdi made people care about the plight of Syrian refugees, this photo made people care about cruelty to animals.

The second reason is similar in nature. As we said in the beginning of the article, people have difficulties when it comes to conceptualizing abstract issues. If it is not something that requires their immediate attention, it gets glanced over. This story becomes just that. It required immediate attention. It made them aware of the ongoing injustice. It made them issue calls for a change. It made them lend their voice to the animal rights activists who for a long time have been calling for animal cruelty to become a crime, not just misconduct.

Essential follow-up

It seems that the call has finally reached the ears of the politicians this time. Representatives from both the government and opposition parties condemned the atrocity, stating that they will be working to remedy the problem. They pledged that the introduction of a new bill on the subject will be prioritized in the new legislative year after the upcoming elections.

Here, we wrote numerous articles on the necessity of positive and responsible journalism. We said that apart from providing the news to the public, journalism had another mission. And that is to address the injustices in society, by making sure they are visible and talked about. This is responsible journalism in action. For the past year, the increased attention both on social media and mainstream media led to higher visibility of the problem. It was a long process of progress, built upon the valiant efforts of animal rights activists who first unearthed the incidents on social media. It was followed by the editors who picked up these stories and increased their audience. The culmination of this effort is what we see today where people are demanding changes and politicians responding to these calls.

Of course, the work does not end here, responsible journalism calls for more. The media must follow up on the case. It must report on the developments if there are any. It must also follow up when it comes to the promises of reforms made by the representatives of all political parties. If the promises were just lip service prior to the elections, then it must report on that, forcing the hands of politicians.

Otherwise society loses momentum when it comes to this individual problem and turns to more visible ones in the future. And we will go through this process of outrage, coverage and forgetfulness once again when another animal is subject to such cruel treatment.

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